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A rider prepares to load his bicycle onto the front of a Capital Area Transportation System (CATS) bus at the station at Florida Boulevard and 22nd Street in this file photo.

The union representing workers at the Capital Area Transit System filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing the agency's CEO, Bill Deville, of retaliating against employees who spoke out publicly about unsafe working conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The lawsuit was filed shortly after CATS leaders sent a letter to employees saying they didn't plan on recognizing the union's collective bargaining agreement in the new year because the union hadn't offered proof that it represented a majority of workers. 

For months, the union's leadership has been at loggerheads with CATS' management. They held a press conference in April to decry what they say was inadequate personal protective equipment and watered down hand sanitizer for bus drivers risking their lives to work during the pandemic. 

In July, CATS fired four of the union's leaders, saying they were untruthful and failed to cooperate in an internal investigation into the dissemination of a sexually explicit video filmed off-premises by two CATS employees. The lawsuit called the investigation "out of proportion to the incident" and said it served only as a cover to engage in a "mass firing" of union activists. 

"This is flat out censorship and union-busting by CATS," John Costa, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, wrote in a statement. "They are violating our First Amendment rights in an attempt to silence Union officers by firing them for speaking about the dangerous and unsafe conditions at CATS during the pandemic."

CATS' CEO Bill Deville did not return a request for comment. 

The collective bargaining agreement between CATS and the worker's union expired on Dec. 31, 2020. In a letter sent to employees earlier this week, Deville said the union failed to "affirmatively demonstrate that it represents a majority of bargaining unit employees," and therefore CATS planned to override the contract and implement a new arbitration policy come Jan. 1, 2021. 

The letter also says the agency anticipates future pay raises for CATS employees, "with or without the union's participation." 

Yvette Rhines, the president of CATS' union, said she believed management felt threatened by the union's power, noting that she and others helped to overturn several disciplinary actions lodged against workers. 

"They felt like we had the upper hand," Rhines said.

CATS and the union agreed to a 30-day contract extension on Thursday night, according to Anthony Garland, an international vice president with the ATU. 

The lawsuit, filed in the federal Middle District of Louisiana, asks the courts to reinstate the fired union members and provide back pay. It argues that their First Amendment rights were violated. 

The union says its members also faced retaliation for speaking out against "corrupt business practices within CATS management." In September, they picketed a CATS board meeting, charging the agency's leadership with mismanagement and demanding better oversight of how taxpayer dollars were spent. 

CATS is funded in large part by $17 million in property taxes paid by residents living inside the cities of Baton Rouge and Baker. It also receives millions of additional dollars from federal grant programs. 

Deville's leadership recently came under scrutiny from union officials after an abrupt switch in insurance brokers made it difficult for several employees to collect benefits they had paid for. Deville also did not include the union in its decision to switch insurance carriers, as required by the union contract, forcing CATS' board into a renewal with its previous carrier that's resulted in a $140,000 hike in insurance premiums. 


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater